Shankar Mahadevan views music as a friend. “When you have music in your life,” he says, “you can never be lonely.” Having been trained since boyhood in the Carnatic classical tradition, Mahadevan today ranks among India’s top tier of young musicians. His blockbuster hit, “Breathless,” was a four-minute melody sung seemingly in a single breath. How does artistic risk compare with business risk? What can corporate teams learn from the way musicians collaborate? In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton during the recent Wharton India Economic Forum, Mahadevan discussed these questions and more.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Shankar, thank you so much for joining us today.
Shankar Mahadevan: Pleasure.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s start with a very simple question. What does music mean to you?
Mahadevan: Music is — if you want me to describe it in one word — a friend. And when you have music in your life you can never be lonely. It is just there with you as a companion whom you can talk to, interact with, think about, and create.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Tell me about how you got started in music.
Mahadevan: At a very young age, actually. When I was about four years old, I had gone to my uncle’s place down south [in India]. I was born in Bombay [now Mumbai]. I saw this instrument and I just picked it up and I started playing it without knowing what the instrument was. Obviously I didn’t know — I had never seen it — it was a harmonium. My parents and my uncle felt a little intrigued by how this guy was playing. So they started testing me with a few melodies to sing. And I used to just reproduce them. I think the decoding — to decode a melody, you know, and output it on the harmonium — was already there [within me]. So that was interesting. I said I want this instrument. I want to buy one. So I bought one. And that’s how it started.
Being from a middle-class Indian family, I learned Carnatic music. And my parents were very [particular] about of teaching me the proper Carnatic music in the proper way. You don’t take any shortcuts. So, that’s why I’m here.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a difference between learning music the way you did almost like a vocation? And then turning it into a profession? What’s the difference?
Mahadevan: You can definitely become a professional. You can definitely become successful. And you can become extremely popular even without learning music. But it all depends on what you want to do. How do you want to perform this art form of music: whether you want to approach it the real hard way by knowing every single technical [element] that is involved in a song? Why get into all that? Or you can just learn a few songs. If people are talented, they can just sing. But I feel that if you learn music the hard way and you know what you are doing [at] every step, you are a confident person. And you are able to face any circumstances, any situation, any form of music. You are able to absorb easily. And you will somehow stay on for a longer time because it is not superficial. You are a learned [person]. It is like any art form. It is like literature, for example. If you are well-read and you write something, there is a difference. There is an easy way out, too. But I think it always helps if you follow the path the correct way.
India Knowledge at Wharton: I think you have described the path very well. What were some of the choices that you made along the lines of this path? And what did you learn from those choices?
Mahadevan: During our times — I’m sounding like an old man — but times have changed very drastically in the past 10 or 15 years. When I used to learn music, I didn’t even think about it. Now, kids have become a little calculating. When they learn music they are already thinking about their first album. They are working towards it. I don’t think this is the way you should do it. You should learn music because you want to learn music, just follow it blindly with great perseverance and dedication. You are just hammering that into your system. The other things that happen — you become a playback singer or you become a pop star or you have a successful release — are just derivatives of your musical knowledge. That is how we have done it. I don’t think you can have a calculated approach towards learning music.
India Knowledge at Wharton: So can you take me through some of the steps that you took in your musical journey?
Mahadevan: One thing that I did was — or it happened to me — was the teacher that I got (T.R.) Balamani. She [is] a teacher who has dedicated her entire life to teaching. So if you get the correct person from whom you are learning, half the battle is won. You should not think about what I am going to do and how I am going to make so much money? When you are learning music, you have to just learn. And rigorous practice, focus, and perfection of the art. My father used to always tell me that when you go and perform at a competition, you should aim for the first prize. But you should not aim only for the first prize. The difference between the first prize and the second prize should be almost 10 steps. It means there should be no comparison. That is when you have achieved excellence.
So all these things were with me always. And I think I was always a student. I am always a student of music — even now. Anything new that I hear — anything that is challenging like in my journey of music. I was learning Carnatic classical music but I was never a person who wanted to be a pure Carnatic classical singer only, because there were other forms of music which attracted me equally. When I heard some of the great jazz masters, some Indian Hindustani classical artists, I wanted to sing all the things they sang. These are qualities I feel have helped me move ahead. They helped me in my composing, in my adaptability to various forms of music.
India Knowledge at Wharton: It is very interesting. You are using terms like excellence, perfection, adaptability. In the business world, too, these are terms that companies use as they compete with one another.
Mahadevan: Really? Not that I know of because I am completely at zero in all these things.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What I wonder is what can business people learn from the creativity that a musician has? Because there is a creative side to business as well.
Mahadevan: Yes. There is a creative side to anything. I feel that one thing that a businessman can learn is: do not follow a path that has already been successful. You will never be a path-breaker then. I would never want to create a Breathless [the album that gave him fame] again, because it will always be compared to my first Breathless. That’s over. Every time you want to create something, you should look at a new or untapped territory. I’m sure there are untapped territories in music, in business, in arts, in painting, in dancing. Melodically, I am talking from a musician’s point of view, you can go and compose something in untapped territories. The risk is very high of falling flat on your face. Like when I composed Breathless I could have just thrown the whole thing out saying, “What is this nonsense? How can anybody sing this song?”
India Knowledge at Wharton: Just for the sake of those who are not familiar. Breathless was your first blockbuster.
Mahadevan: Yes. It was a success and it was a different theme. It was a song which seemed like it was sung in one breath and it just starts and goes on and on. So it really succeeded. But it was something just completely new and untapped.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You used another term that is very commonly used in business and that term is “risk”. How do you manage risk in your art? And what can business people learn about risk management through your eyes or through your voice?
Mahadevan: The risk in an art form — becoming successful — is much more than a risk involved in a business because I think in business you can have certain statistics. You can have certain pre-calculations based on graphs and calculations and statistics. You can judge whether you will be able to at least achieve this much or no.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Or you could lose your shirt if you miscalculate risk in business.
Mahadevan: Yes, that is true. But in an art form it is such an abstract thing. What is a melody? Think about it. Technically you are just putting a few frequencies together and a few words together. And you are just letting [it] out into thin air and it has to appeal to you when you listen to it. It is a very abstract thing. It may appeal to you. It may not appeal to you. But I feel if you are a learned musician to begin with, if you are a master of your own art, then when you create something you have to be very critical internally. You should not fool yourself saying that, yeah, this is okay. No, it can’t be just okay. It has to be good. And it has to appeal to you. It has to touch your own heart and the people around you.
Then there is the risk: whether the public is going to accept it or not accept it. But one thing is for sure: when we create new forms of music, we go on doing it one after the other. Some fail. Some succeed. But nobody will tell that this music is mediocre. So failure or success does not mean it is good or bad. It is good. Because you know that musically — you learned that aesthetically — it is of a certain level. Nobody can tell me that it’s not right. That will never happen because I am quality conscious. I will make music that is of a certain quality. If it succeeds it’s great. If it doesn’t, it is fine.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Are there some risks you will not take?
Mahadevan: The biggest risk is when you go into untapped territories and you create something that nobody has ever done before. Like when we did this song Maa [in the film Taare Zameen Par]. It was with one guitar and a voice. It was a risk we took. Many people thought you should dub it in a child’s voice because it is a child’s emotion. How can a male — an adult male — be singing for a child’s emotion? We gave it a thought. Should we dub it in a child’s voice? We said, no, let it just remain an adult. We felt that a child’s voice always appeals. Somehow, subconsciously people feel that it is a children’s song. Whereas an adult male singing an emotion just cuts across and it becomes a universal emotion. And that’s what it did. The whole country cried.
India Knowledge at Wharton: That’s very interesting. Now you just participated and won a very interesting competition in India called “Music Ka Maha Muqqabla” in which teams of musicians competed against one another. Tell me about your philosophy of managing a team and how you bring about the best in a team, because this is a very common challenge that companies face as well
Mahadevan: What I enjoyed the most in Music Ka Maha Muqqabla was that I had to get out of my own little comfortable zone that I had created for myself because I was very established in my own field. So being established in my own field, what do I do? I perform for people. I compose. I do a lot of shows. After performing repeatedly, you are very comfortable in your own zone. So, you know, the whole team is ready. I was just talking to somebody about the same thing. The team is ready. Waiting. 20,000 people are there in the audience. But you are not nervous or tense because your act is absolutely ready. I walk in. I drive into the venue 10 minutes before the show. Five minutes before the show I get a microphone in my hand and I walk on stage and I perform. Because I am very comfortable and I know my band is ready, my act is ready. The songs are super-duper hits. I know that the crowd is going to dance from the beginning to end.
But suddenly being thrown in with a team like this, what happens is that you have to think out of what you normally do. You have to think for your team. You have to think of functioning as a group and not only for yourself. And you were thrown with many challenges like we had to do a round of songs, which were from the 1960s and 1970s. There was a very interesting round called the medley round. What we decided was we would make use of this — the medley round especially — and we tried to create new things, new medleys, new concepts. It is not only a bunch of songs put together. That is what made us stand out differently when people saw the thing [program]. Our thing was always standing out when our medley came because we tried to deal with many issues, with social causes — every medley had a theme. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was extremely sad. Sometimes we gave a social message. So I think thinking out of the box is basically it, you know? What we are not supposed to do is more important than what we are supposed to do.
India Knowledge at Wharton: That is a great piece of advice. One last question for you. Based on everything you have said, music is, of course, an art. It is a vocation. But it is also a global business. And it is a global business that has been dramatically disrupted by technology. How do you see the future of a business in which intellectual property may be very hard to protect? How do you see sources of success in the music industry going forward?
Mahadevan: Since you have talked about intellectual property, I would like to talk about the scenario in our country so that people over here (US) also realize what is happening. It is a very sad situation as far as intellectual property is concerned in our country where the composers — that is the authors and the songwriters — don’t own any of the works. You must be surprised by this. None of the works, which are created by not only us but also the great masters [are owned by us]. This is a very sad situation. It has happened because of ignorance to a certain extent and because of the music companies and the people who are managing the music taking advantage of the situation and writing agreements where you sign off all your rights. Now the government of India is bringing out an amendment in the law and they are giving ownership of the rights to the artists, which is going to be fantastic. If the law gets passed, which we pray it will, and I’m sure it will, I think a lot is going to change. My rights are [now] gone. I am worried about piracy but it doesn’t affect me. It is not the money that I am supposed to earn. I feel anyway cheated and exploited because my rights have been taken away.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Are you using technology to reach your audience directly like through your own website and things like that?
Mahadevan: Yes. We have our websites and stuff like that, of course. But I feel that once this law comes into place the authors and writers will be able to retain their own rights and quality will improve. Quality will improve because it will directly affect income. It is not like you just write anything and you get paid the same amount. So things are happening.
India Knowledge at Wharton: That’s great. Shankar, thank you so much for speaking with us today.